As president of PRA Destination Management New York and the incoming president of the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives, PATRICK SULLIVAN is a busy guy. And his more than 20 eventful years as a corporate meeting planner, incentive house account executive, and now head of a major, has given him a broad perspective on the industry. While he's pretty much done it all, the current economic climate, he says, is a new challenge for everyone.
Corporate Meetings & Incentives: What effects are you seeing from the economic slowdown on international incentive travel?
Patrick Sullivan: The subprime mortgage debacle is having an impact on European incentives. And the ever-declining U.S. dollar also affects the European market. We're definitely seeing a decrease in the number of programs going outside of the U.S. With the dollar so low, everybody's sharpening their pencils and deciding whether they can take a program overseas.
CMI: Are there any solutions?
Sullivan: Yes. Many European DMCs and hotels are getting smart about coming up with U.S.-dollar-guaranteed packages, so planners can lock in rates. My advice to planners is to lock in quickly if it's a good value, and don't try to nickel and dime the prices down. Suppliers are willing to risk losing a bit of their profit margin, but the U.S. dollar guarantees won't last forever.
CMI: What are the biggest obstacles to international incentive programs?
Sullivan: The cost of fuel is a major issue — if that doesn't change, airline fares will keep going up. Fuel surcharges are filtering into everything, such as carriers charging for checked luggage. Hopefully, incentive attendees will continue to recognize the value of international travel and their companies will be able to budget for higher airfares. One thing that may help is that hotels are starting to lower their price points.
CMI: Will rising prices affect the way incentive planners do their jobs?
Sullivan: Planners are busier than ever because of budget and staff cutbacks. They're on a treadmill, managing one meeting after another and doing more with flat budgets. What planners need to do is negotiate: Talk with their hospitality partners about lowering costs by providing things like free meeting room space, no additional fee on venue rentals, or a free half-hour cocktail party. Those areas should be on a separate spreadsheet for planners to show their bosses, who may not understand our industry. Planners need to prove to management not just that they ran a great program, but also how much money they saved.
CMI: How can planners meet winners' expectations in a tanking economy?
Sullivan: Today's producers are working all the time — they are so busy that they probably don't have much free time to spend with their spouse or partner. So more planners are looking at the advantages of not filling every moment of the trip. It's a cost-savings to the company, and it also gives back to the attendees. Some companies are even offering a stipend for meals and/or activities.
CMI: Let's talk about your coming year as president of SITE. What are your goals?
Sullivan: To continue to increase the membership of SITE. With members in 23 countries, we're constantly finding new ways to grow. A new look for our Web site (with our new brand) will be launched in December at our annual conference in Montreux, Switzerland. I also want to be sure our members understand the increasing value and benefits of SITE. Communication will be key. We can never communicate enough because our members are so busy. Part of the message is, “Get involved. Participate.” Particularly in these tough times, there are big benefits to being proactive and attending. As well, there's a younger generation out there that needs more exposure to the incentive industry. For them, participating in SITE will help with education, networking, and business opportunities, ultimately helping to bring in more revenue to their companies and advance their careers.
Cisco Systems Inc. has begun renting videoconferencing rooms to the public for one-off meetings, aiming to introduce its high-definition TelePresence conferencing system to small and midsize companies.
In mid-October, Clear launched its Registered Traveler airport security program at Boston Logan International in conjunction with Delta Air Lines. The company has also raised its annual membership fee to $199.
Individuals or groups who purchase goods in Mexico are now able to get their Value-Added Tax (VAT) refunded by completing a form and presenting it together with an invoice at the airport.
New legislation, called the Travelers Privacy Protection Act, has been introduced in Congress that will curtail the ability of U.S. Border Patrol agents to search and seize laptops at U.S. borders without reasonable suspicion.
Reed Travel Exhibitions will launch its new Americas Incentive Business Travel and Meetings Exhibition in July 2010 at the Baltimore Convention Center. The show is booked in Baltimore for five years.
The Convention Industry Council is accepting nominations for the 2010 Hall of Leaders. The deadline for the bi-annual awards is January 16, 2009, and inductees will be announced in March 2009.
A new Web site, www.bestplacestomeetgreen.com, offers a “Scorecard” tool that ranks meeting destinations on their “greenness” as well as a calculator that helps planners find a central meeting destination that will minimize emissions from air travel.
The New York City edition of the Meetings Technology Expo, a series of one-day technology conferences that rotate around the country, takes place on November 18 at the Holiday Inn Midtown. www.meetingstechexpo.com
Green Events Webinar
Join a free webinar on November 20 to review the efforts under way to produce achievable, voluntary standards for greener meetings and events. The Environmental Protection Agency and ASTM International Standards is working with the Accepted Practices Exchange (APEX) initiative, an effort of the Convention Industry Council, to create guidelines that both meeting managers and the hospitality community can embrace.
Register at www.meetingsnet.com to get up to date on one of the hottest issues of our industry and hear how you can get involved.